Kill your tech truths

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I recently read a profile of the performance artist Marina Abramovic, whose work is currently featured in a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Abramovic’s signature works include Rhythm 0, in which she lay passively in a gallery next to a series of objects that audience members could use on her body, including to injure her; The Lips of St. Thomas, in which she cut a pentagram into her stomach using a razor; and Balkan Baroque, in which  the artist spent hours sitting in a basement room, scrubbing maggot-covered, rotting cowbones.

While I was still mulling over how I could get to New York for the exhibit — and whether I was brave enough to see it! — I landed in a crunch week that blocked out all thoughts of weekend getaways. I got the great news that my first blog post for Oprah.com was going to go live — a post that would link both to my blog and to the SIM Centre’s. I had three days to get my blog cleaned up, and to get the SIM Centre site — at that time, a bare-bones placeholder — ready for public consumption. So I went into overdrive, and the day that my Oprah post went live, I was more than a little bleary-eyed.

“I hear you were working until 4 last night!”, a colleague exclaimed when I showed up.

“The last three nights, actually. But you know, that’s what it takes to launch a web site.”

She looked at me, incredulous. Her face portrayed the same mix of fascination and horror I’d felt when reading about Abramovic’s work. To my colleague, 3 consecutive late late work nights sounded about as pleasant as cutting a pentagram into my flesh.

I relayed this story to Lauren Bacon, a friend and colleague with her own successful web shop, Raised Eyebrow.

“You know what it’s like, don’t you? You just can’t get a web site done without all-nighters.”

“Actually, we have a no overtime policy,” Lauren told me. My jaw dropped.

“How do you get your sites launched?”

“We plan our development process out,” she told me. “It’s very rare that anyone has to stay late.”

I was astonished. Lauren’s been in the development business longer than I have. With no all-nighters?

The intensity of the shock was my sign that something was up. Shock happens when something collides with a baseline, unshakeable truth. And I’ve trained myself to be suspicious of unshakeable truths: it’s the absolute truths that always get you in trouble. Absolute truths hold you back, tell you something has to be a specific way and can’t possibly be any different.

And tech truths might be the most pernicious kind. After all, much of the power and efficiency of technology lies in its consistency, structure and predictability. We’re taught to think of technologies as constants…and so we fall into thinking of tech in absolutes, and getting attached to truths that hold us back more than they help us.

Here are some of the tech truths that I hear a lot — either in my own head, or from other people:

  • I have to respond to every email.
  • If we let our employees access Facebook they won’t get any work done.
  • Social media is for people who don’t value their privacy.
  • I have to be on Facebook (or Twitter, or FourSquare, or….).
  • I’m no good at computers (programming, cell phones, blogging, etc).
  • I need more followers/friends/contacts in my network.
  • I can’t go on vacation without my Blackberry.
  • I’ll never convince my boss to use social media.
  • Macs are so much better than PCs.
  • I don’t have time for social networking.

Do any of these sound familiar? Well, just because it made the list doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But if any of these lines is something you say (or think) a lot — and the more certain you are that it’s right — the more you need to step back and ask whether it’s a truth that’s serving you well. It’s these certainties that lock us into limitations that keep technology from being as useful to us as it can be, or that keep us from recognizing when it’s time to unplug and connect with people (or ourselves) offline.

If you’re ready to rethink one of your tech truths, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Who else thinks this is true? Does that person have the kind of life, work or attitude I want for myself?
  • Who do I know who doesn’t believe this? What does she or he have to say about this?
  • What’s a gentle way I could push my limits? Can I think of a one-day or one-week experiment that would let me try out a different approach?
  • What frightens me about letting go of this truth? What’s the worst thing that could happen if it were true, but I tried acting as if it weren’t?
  • If this weren’t true, what would I do differently? What possibilities would emerge?

These are the questions I’m now asking about one of my most pernicious tech truths: the Law of the All-Nighter. Yes, I know lots of other developers who subscribe to this law — and like me they experience the pain of the morning (and week) after. Lauren’s experience proves that it doesn’t have to be that way. I could try another approach by promising that my next web project will involve no work after midnight — and by making that a project without a fixed launch date.

And while there are some fears around letting go — what if I never get the site finished? won’t I miss those crazy, focused late night work sessions with Rob? — there’s also the relief of imagining a web launch that isn’t followed by a week of total exhaustion and physical collapse.

If I can kill one tech truth, I know I can kill others. What are the tech truths that you need to kill?

2 Comments on this site

  1. Lee-Anne Ragan

    Love this post Alexandra – in my world I call it assumption busting. I do a lot of work cross-culturally / internationally and breaking assumptions is one of the most powerful tools for becoming more culturally intelligent. It’s also a powerful tool for increasing creativity / innovation – breaking down those tight bands we unwittingly put around our thinking is not only constricting but it kills creativity.

    I love your examples as well (except the Mac one – she says as a die hard Mac fan 🙂

    Lee-Anne Ragan, http://www.rpsinc.ca

  2. Lee-Anne Ragan

    Love this post Alexandra – in my world I call it assumption busting. I do a lot of work cross-culturally / internationally and breaking assumptions is one of the most powerful tools for becoming more culturally intelligent. It’s also a powerful tool for increasing creativity / innovation – breaking down those tight bands we unwittingly put around our thinking is not only constricting but it kills creativity.

    I love your examples as well (except the Mac one – she says as a die hard Mac fan 🙂

    Lee-Anne Ragan, http://www.rpsinc.ca

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